All interviews were conducted in Turkish and translated by the author. Additionally, the pseudonym ‘Alara Yildiz’ has been used to protect a source’s identity.
Alara Yildiz first visited the Hagia Sophia in 2018 for a school project while the building was in the midst of a major restoration. Scaffolding and barriers blocked movement through- out the structure and obscured views of the Hagia Sophia’s interior walls. But it was not the monumental size of the structure that drew Yildiz’s attention—she found herself fascinated by the Arabic calligraphy that traced a mosaic of the Virgin Mary.
“It seemed like a synthesis and union of Islam and Christianity. It was such an enchanting and special scene,” she said in an interview with The Politic.
Now a 19-year-old college student in Istanbul, Yildiz is grateful to have visited Hagia Sophia back then despite her proximity to the ancient monument today, for she was able to visit before the building became a mosque and her feelings about its symbolism changed.
Yildiz, who refers to herself as an atheist, does not plan on visiting Hagia Sophia again.
On July 24, 2020, Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia would be opened to Salat, Muslim prayers. Until then, the structure had been serving as a museum for 86 years.
Erdogan’s conversion of the building from a secular museum to a mosque has sparked strong disagreement between different groups. Some Turkish Muslims largely expressed their delight, while many in the Ortho- dox Greek minority groups of Istanbul were fearful about what this decision signified for them, given the government’s centuries-old attempts to sup- press their community. While the Hagia Sophia will still be open to visitors of all faiths outside of prayer hours, this decision represents, to Turkey’s Orthodox minority, a state-sanctioned hierarchy of Islam over Christianity.
Secular individuals felt that the reclassification constituted an attack on the liberal values of former pres- ident Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—who founded the new Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Historians expressed hope that the government would preserve the historical monument artistically and architecturally in its new state.
Hagia Sophia has become a cultural touchstone, exemplifying the competing ideas about Turkey’s past— and its future.
The very name “Hagia Sophia” (Ayasofya in Turkish) is derived from the ancient Greek words hagia (sacred) and sophia (wisdom). Originally the largest church erected by the Eastern Roman Empire, the Hagia Sophia mosque that stands today is the build- ing’s third iteration, having been razed and rebuilt twice before. While there is not much information about the first structure, it was thought to have been constructed around 360 AD by the then-patriarch of the city, Saint Johannes Khyrsostomos, under the name “Great Church” (Megali Ekklesia). A later, second renovation occured in 415 AD under the reign of Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople, but it was destroyed just a century later during the notorious Nika Revolts. It was not until more than 100 years later in 532 AD that Byzantine Emperor Justinian funded construction on the building, which is referred to as the Hagia Sophia today.
Art historian Hayri Fehmi Yilmaz, who specializes in Byzantine art, emphasized Hagia Sophia’s unique harmony of two distinct architectural traditions: The building features a Byzantine dome-shaped church as well as a wooden-roofed basilica.
“[The Hagia Sophia] has neither a predecessor nor a successor. Byzantines were so affected by the structure that they thought it was shaped by divine inspiration,” Yilmaz said in an interview with The Politic. “Hagia Sophia is a structure that probably has one of the most legends about it. There is the structure which is studied by experts in art history and architecture, but the Hagia Sophia is also importantly the source of dreams and legends—and because of that many folks have come to consider the building as almost sacred.”
Yorgo Istefanopulos, a professor at Işık University and the president of two Greek Orthodox foundations in Istanbul, is aware of many centuries-old folktales concerning the building. Some relate to the early construction of the third Hagia Sophia: Emperor Justinian was apparently so impressed with the church when he first saw it that he famously exclaimed, “I’ve beaten you, Solomon!”—considering the glory and opulence of the Hagia Sophia to exceed even that of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Another myth claims that the Hagia Sophia was designed by a bee. A priest was in the midst of providing a piece of wine bread to Emperor Justinian during Christmas Day Communion when a bee stole the piece of bread. With the divine inspiration imparted through Communion, the bee was able to dream up the majestic structure of Hagia Sophia back in its hive.
Although these folktales form an important basis for Turkish society’s understanding of and relationship to the Hagia Sophia, Sedat Bornovali, an art historian and the president of the Istanbul Chamber of Tourist Guides, considers the myth-constructed perception of Hagia Sophia to blind citizens’ vision of the building. These leg- ends, he believes, hamper any ability to recognize the building’s historical and architectural importance.
Bornovali was the first expert in 86 years to suggest the continuation of archeological excavations in Hagia Sophia. Although President Ataturk approved of excavations on the Hagia Sophia in the early 20th century, no one has thought to continue the endeavor since—despite the rich history and artifacts that likely lie under the Hagia Sophia today. The logistics of the excavations also would have been simple to facilitate, given Hagia Sophia’s proximity to the Istanbul Archeology Museum in the Fatih District of the city.
According to Bornovali, people’s tendencies to mythologize Hagia Sophia preclude deeper analysis of its history. Different ethnic and religious groups consider the Hagia Sophia only as it is situated within their own ideological framework: Devout Muslims and Christians prioritize spiritual legends while secular supporters assert the building’s technological and architectural superiority and minimize its significance both to Christianity and to Islam. As a result, the perception of the monument is inextricable from bias.
For Bornovali, the projection of competing religious beliefs on Hagia Sophia obfuscates its historical significance. While each group claims to pro- mote an objective interpretation of the structure, for Bornovali, “Nothing is its own symbol, it can only be a symbol of something else.”
But then again, the true mean- ing of Hagia Sophia has always been political, warped by overlapping religious and cultural narratives. When Romans invaded Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, both the city and the Hagia Sophia, as Constantinople’s largest church, were looted, and the Hagia Sophia became a Catholic church for a short time. After the Fall of Constantinople (also known as the conquest of Istanbul) in 1453, Fatih Sultan Mehmet converted it into a mosque that also housed a charity foundation (külliye).
The building’s consistent conversion from religion to religion is almost “an ancient medieval practice,” according to Yilmaz. “Whoever conquers the city also acquires the biggest sanctuary of the city…. You don’t only get the city, but you also get all of its structures, too.”
Often redesigned and reedified throughout its history, the Hagia Sophia naturally has become an inspiration for Ottoman art.
“Whenever someone says a ‘mosque’ in the Ottoman and Turkey geographies, the mosque image that pops up in their minds looks similar to Hagia Sophia—a mosque with a large dome and semi-domes,” Yilmaz continued. “To Muslims, Hagia Sophia has become a symbol for mosques.”
The Hagia Sophia continued to operate as a mosque from 1453 until 1934, when Ataturk ordered that the Hagia Sophia be turned into a muse- um. Ataturk’s conversion epitomized the secular reforms that the leader passed as he sought to build a Western, European-facing Turkey. Many Muslims interpreted this decision as a direct attack on Islam and the religion’s role in Turkish society. Since 1934, though, no leader has sought to change Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, with the building included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites and remaining one of the most popular tourist sites in Turkey.
That is, until Erdogan’s right-leaning government chose to break with Ataturk’s legacy last year and decided to convert the building back into a mosque.
Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, serving as a palisade against Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean. While the country was considered “Western” enough to join NATO, the Republic’s decade-long battle to join the European Union in 1987 ended in 2019 when accession negotiations officially ended over outrage about Turkey’s human rights record. With Turkey unable to orient itself closer to Europe, Erdogan has quietly strengthened ties with Russia and China, like many other countries in the Middle East.
Following the structure’s re- classification, the Erdogan administration laid a turquoise carpet down over the floors for prayers, concealing Byzantine mosaics with curtains once again—even though they were on pub- lic display until late 1740s under the officially Islamist Ottoman rule.
“Because these images inhibit Islamic prayers, they are now concealed behind a curtain. It is always possible to open these curtains and see the imagery, but it is forbidden to have this imagery and depiction in Islam,” Mehmet Boynukalin, one of the three appointed imams of Hagia Sophia, said.
For now, Erdogan’s government has agreed to protect the Christian art. Yet, as the new mosque draws criticism from international leaders, the new religious symbolism of Hagia Sophia remains disputed.
For individuals like Yildiz, Erdogan’s decision is not only a symbolic threat toward the European Union, but a masked threat to Greek and Orthodox Christian communities in Turkey as well.
“It seems like he’s saying ‘I don’t care about you. We can turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, do whatever we want, and you can’t interfere with us,’” Yildiz said.
But for many practicing Muslims in Turkey, the decision to return the Hagia Sophia to its roots as a mosque corrects, as Erdogan has explained, Ataturk’s initial “mistake” of convert- ing the mosque into a monument. The conversion from a museum to a mosque aligns with Erdogan’s consistent efforts to shift Turkey from Ataturk’s secular legacy to a deepened, conservative Islamist identity.
And yet critics of the decision— and of the Erdogan government—have interpreted the reclassification of Hagia Sophia as having little basis in religion: Rather, they argue that it is meant to distract and placate Turkey’s Muslim majority as the Erdogan government struggles to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It seems though that if this was Erdogan’s goal, he has failed.
The situation has further enhanced the longstanding tensions between liberal Kemalists, conservative Muslims, and Turkey’s Orthodox Greek minority. Historians, however, have taken this time to look at the event through a different lens and as an opportunity to reexamine Hagia Sophia’s history.
“It was a Christian temple for around 900 years, and a mosque for about half of this time. It is an architectural and engineering miracle which belongs to the whole world,” Istefanopulos said.
Years ago, when a journalist from Daily Sabah interviewed Istefanopulos about the Greek minority community and the activities of their charity foundations, Istefanopulos was asked his thoughts on Hagia Sophia. While the question was unexpected, Istefanopulos shared his appreciation of Ataturk’s move towards secularization. But he also suggested it could be opened to prayers four times a year—on Easter and Christmas for Christians, and on Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr for Muslims.
Speaking on behalf of the Ortho- dox Greeks, Istefanopulos explained that the presence of the Arabic roundels inscribed to Allah, Muhammed, and Hussein, among other Arabic inscriptions, would not impact the Hagia Sophia’s potential utilization as a church.
Istefenapulos also thinks the structure’s global orientation is crucial for the country’s tourism income: “After it was added to the World Heritage List of UNESCO in 1934 and converted to a museum, Hagia Sophia became one of the most significant contributors to Turkey’s tourism economy,” Istefanopulos said. “Yet that will not be the case anymore. As of right now, no one is paying to enter the mosque.”
But Boynukalin views the novel- ty of free entrance to the building as an advantage. For him, not being obliged to pay has made the structure more accessible to the masses.
“The visitor numbers are increasing, because anyone who wants to can now enter Hagia Sophia without paying anything,” Boynukalin told The Politic in an email correspondence. “Although it used to be silent and dark, Hagia Sophia is now awakened and has returned to its true identity as a ritual site.” Boynukalin felt honored when the Directorate of Religious Affairs offered him a position as an imam. For him, being a religious leader in such a historically significant sanctuary was a source of great happiness.
“As an indicator of secularism and westernization, Hagia Sophia— the greatest and the most beautiful mosque of the now Muslim city of Istanbul—was closed down and turned into a museum in 1934,” Boynukalin said. “After 86 years of unending demands from the public, Hagia Sophia has regained its identity as a mosque.”
For Yildiz, however, Hagia Sophia opening its doors to the masses has overshadowed critical public health measures aimed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Following news of the building opening for prayer, a lot of people came from around the world: From Pakistan, from America, from everywhere,” Yildiz said. “It has posed a big threat to public health in Istanbul.” Salat, and particularly Friday Prayers (Salat al-Jumu’ah), often draw hundreds of people to their local mosques: During the pandemic, gatherings of this size are considered dangerous.
Yet while Friday Prayers initially drew large and enthusiastic crowds, from what Bornovali observed, the initial excitement has worn off over the past months.
According to Bornovali, the dwindling crowds reveal a deeper truth: Istanbul actually carries no historical importance for either Christianity or Islam despite contemporary discourse to the contrary. As such, Hagia Sophia does not embody a particular religious significance for either of the religions.
“What is Hagia Sophia a symbol of? The symbol is in the possession of the Hagia Sophia. Of acquiring it from someone else,” Bornovali said. Istanbul, and the Hagia Sophia with its imposing views of the Bosphorus Strait— which divides Asia from Europe—has long been seized, looted, and rebuilt by generations of Christians and Muslims.
Byzantine Christians construct- ed the initial structure and its iterations, Romans seized it for Catholicism, and later Muslims laid claim to Hagia Sophia through a famous hadith, or saying, by the prophet Muhammed: “One day Constantinople will be conquered. Great is the commander who will conquer it. Great are his soldiers.”
Many Islamic scholars deny the accuracy of the hadith attribution to the Prophet Muhammed, but accord- ing to Yildiz, Muslims—whether Turkish or non-Turkish—feel empowered by the thought that Istanbul finally belongs to them.
“Hagia Sophia was the last remaining monument as a peace symbol between Muslim Turks and Orthodox Christians. Now that the conversion is made, it is a source of sadness for the Greek minorities as much as it is a source of happiness for Muslim Turks,” Yildiz explained.
According to Yilmaz, Muslims have long viewed the Hagia Sophia as emblematic of the Ottoman victory over Christians following the Fall of Constantinople. Ever since the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) came under the control of Islamic rulers, Muslims have interpreted this as a manifestation of Allah’s will.
In that sense, Hagia Sophia has served as a symbol of Byzantine Christianity, Ottoman Islam, and of the Republic of Turkey’s 20th century secularization. For art historians like Bornovali and Yilmaz, determining how the structure should operate today is complicated by its diverse background and meanings to different groups.
For those Muslims now practicing at the mosque, the building’s historical and religious underpinnings are not mutually exclusive.“The fact that the building is now a mosque does not prevent any useful and necessary excavation from taking place,” Boynukalin emphasized. Still, historians like Bornovali fear that with the Hagia Sophia’s new status as a mosque, con- temporary efforts to both encourage artistic and architectural preservation as well as explore the mosque’s com- plicated religious history will stagnate.
On a broader level, the debate over Hagia Sophia epitomizes the ongoing clash between the “East”— denoting those areas that belong to the former Islamic Empire—and the “West”—Christian Europe. It reflects Turkey’s centuries-old identity crisis to posit itself on that spectrum. Debates over Hagia Sophia’s meaning reveal a national identity in flux.
During her visit to Hagia Sophia in high school, Yildiz was fascinated by the dichotomy of Byzantine mosaics alongside Arabic letters and what this juxtaposition revealed about the structure’s significance. For Yildiz, Hagia Sophia’s importance does not lie in whether it is a church or a mosque. Rather, Hagia Sophia is important because it is a synthesis of the two.
“If you don’t see the [Byzantine] mosaics—or, if they removed Arabic letters—Hagia Sophia would no longer carry its symbolic importance,” Yildiz said. In Turkey, despite religious polarization between Muslim Turks and Orthodox Christians, both groups share a common heritage that has been shaped by the marriage of Euro- pean and Middle Eastern influences in the country.
This leaves Turkey with a heavy responsibility: Commemorating the Hagia Sophia as a shared cultural inheritance for all ethnic and religious sects while preserving identity groups’ individual claims to the landmark site.
Amid centuries of chaotic transformation, Istanbulis have managed to protect the building to this day. Perhaps Yilmaz summarized this change in the best way: “Atheist, religious Muslim, religious Orthodox, secular, secular Muslim, or secular Orthodox…. It doesn’t matter. It is the duty of all us to preserve the building with all of its elements.”